Childhood

Childhood was Brandon Jones in the backyard at dusk, waiting to catch fireflies. We never saw each other outside of school, and really I only knew him as some girl or another’s crush. People said he lived in West Brattleboro in a small apartment with uncles and cousins instead of parents. He must have walked by and looked up at our big house–with its inviting picture window lit through gauzy curtains, hinting at something wonderful within—and ached to be part of it.

It was our weekly movie night and we were piled onto the couches and chairs on the top floor, getting ready to watch something family friendly, or moderately so, because Mom was a little lax with the movie choices. “Brandon is down there,” someone said. “Brandon Jones.” I doubt if I was even surprised, because kids seemed to show up on our back porch without warning quite often. There was the time Cody and Ryan Houston played basketball in our driveway, not knowing that a new family had moved into the empty house kitty-corner to theirs. They left when Dad went outside to find out who they were; this was before September 11, and I’m sure two pre-teen Vermonters had never heard an Arabic accent before. They might not have even known what Arab was. There was the time Sean Ferguson, (who, like Brandon, lived way across town in an area we only drove past when going to the local diner for Belgian waffles), called the home phone and said, without introduction, “I’m in a comfortable chair on a back porch with a golden dog.” That, of course, was our prized Adirondack chair, and our smiling golden retriever Annie, and our back porch. My girlfriends and I spilled down two flights of stairs, a wave of giggles, and there Sean was, all dimples and sparkling go-light green eyes. There was the time Tosh from next door came through the gap in the fence like a stray cat, looking lost and beat up. On his side of the fence there were junky cars littering the yard and young women with kids, and there was always a stepdad or something yelling at him. We didn’t like Tosh much, but we let him stay on our side until the swell on his cheek lessened or the bloody nose dried up.

It wasn’t so surprising to see Brandon, then, because backyards seemed permeable. We climbed fences and roamed into alleys and buildings and corners of town that didn’t belong to us, but only because nothing seemed to belong to anyone. That’s how Bridget and I found Strawberry Fields, a stretch of wild grass a few twists and turns from the house. We lounged on the grass until it became too itchy, and Bridget wove flowers into our hair. When we skipped back to my yard, where mom was grilling for friends (this was before everyone was vegan or vegetarian or pescatarian), all of the adults smiled at us like we were a pleasant sepia-toned memory they had just unearthed.

Down the road from Strawberry Fields was another discovery, the Hobo Trail, which seemed to have been built for our convenience. Me and the Houston boys lived atop the steep Estey Hill, and two of our gang, Katie and Ava, lived at the bottom. They scaled the hill in freezing New England winters, jeans wet to the knee with snow and air needling exposed skin, and in humid New England summers, the air viscous and fragrant and coated over everything, thick as marmalade. One day during what could have been a hide-and-seek game or just a walk in search of town secrets, one of the Houstons tripped and crashed through the thorny bushes that obscured the trail’s entrance. “Hey, come in here!” he shouted. We followed, and found that the trail led straight down to a white one-room church at the bottom of Estey Hill, just near Katie and Ava’s. The Hobo Trail became our preferred route, but no matter the direction we always met each other halfway and hiked the path as swiftly as Orpheus, since nobody would hear you scream from there—the trail was canopied by trees and cut above a converted factory complex. Even our concept of danger, though, was juvenile, driven by imagination rather than reality. An insane asylum bordered the town, and we imagined a patient might get loose and snatch us from the Hobo Trail. It never happened, of course, but it would have been a good story to pass down to younger siblings except for the fact that all of us were the babies of our households.

Who knows how much time Brandon and I spent catching fireflies? The grass, shaggy and overgrown, nipped at our skinny ankles as we roamed the yard. We were silent, as if our voices would disturb the chorus of chirps and flutters that filled each New England night. Catch and release. Catch and release. We tangled our fingers together and scooped the fireflies into our palms, holding the creatures only until they offered a performative twinkle. Immediately, we’d let go. If one held on too long, the magic was lost.

Leather Jacket

“Ms. A is torturing me,” Leah says. Her posse—Hana, her black hair streaked with purple; Jamila, always swaying unsteadily like she’s not exactly sure how to balance on sprouting limbs; Leslie, a head taller than her friends, contorted downward so as to hide from her impending beauty—turn to face me, eyes wide and unblinking, like a set of dolls.

“Why is that?” I check all of them off on the attendance sheet. Paul leans over my shoulder, having just shouted “I’M HERE! I’M HERE!” in my ear. “I see you,” I replied. He has come to fact-check. Now his blue-eyed gaze is directed away from the attendance sheet and toward the quartet of girls. For once, he is silent, probably in hopes of gaining some insight into what makes these creatures tick.

“Your jacket,” Leah whines. She has braided her sleek brown hair with a ribbon intertwined so that she looks sort of like a My Little Pony. “I want a leather jacket so bad but my mom won’t get me one.”

“Why won’t Mom get you one?” I ask.

“I don’t know,” Leah says, with the same anguish that animated her when the sixth-grade talent show coordinators wouldn’t let her sing a particularly angsty Lorde song. Her wallowing is briefly interrupted when her gaze flickers toward an enthralled Paul; Leah has already turned Michael and Kevin down for pizza-and-movie dates this week.

“Here.” I slide my jacket off and offer it to her. The slack leather, pockets bulging with keys and credit cards, is heavy in my grip as it sways in the space between us. “Go ahead,” I urge.

Leah pauses and glances around as if she might get in trouble. Then she slips into the jacket and skips away, ladies-in-waiting shuffling behind her. “It doesn’t even fit her,” Paul observes as he fans a set of Yu-Gi-Oh! cards out on the sticky cafeteria table. Indeed, two Leahs could slip into the leather jacket’s wide shoulders. Nevertheless, she struts from table to table, posture upright and giggles loud, donning the garment like armor.

Thanks, New York

Sometimes you are having a horrible day. Like, you go to your first job and work straight through, then go straight to your second job. Then you have to go shopping at Target for an all-day job interview the next day. And you hate shopping, and it’s stressful, and you try on three different outfits and variations on those outfits and ruin your done-up hair, that you paid fifty dollars for so you can look professional at the interview.

And then you get home, back hurting, train delayed, exhausted. And you realize you forgot to print out something crucial, something you need for the interview. So off you go, at ten o’clock, to Staples all-night copy shop. And of course none of the machines are working. Your debit card gets eaten up and a manager has to be called. You spend thirty dollars on copies, of which you accidentally make too many.

You leave Staples at eleven-something. You feel just about ready to give up, and you know there is reading and preparing to do for the interview. Then your best friend FaceTimes you, so you sit down on the steps of Union Square, eyes tired, copies in hand, purse weighing heavily on your shoulder.

Your best friend’s big birthday dinner was yesterday, but you missed it. So you talk about the birthday dinner with her, and you watch people amble to and from bars and dates and work. You hear a coarse male voice in the background: “Damn, she FaceTimeing.” He likes the technology; he thinks it’s cool. You turn and he is about what you expected: a middle-aged Black man, an MTA track worker who has risen from the depths of the subway tunnels to have what amounts to lunch with his coworkers. Your back hurts, but you can’t imagine running around the tunnels all night with the rats, taking a lunch break at eleven-something. And yet, he’s so jolly. He smiles widely and peers at the FaceTime.

“Say hi!” you exclaim. He laughs. Your best friend gets embarrassed, but you turn the screen so that he can address her.

“Hi gorgeous,” he says to her, waving. She giggles. “Where is she?”

“Brooklyn,” you answer. “It’s her birthday.”

Your best friend is saying something like “Why would you tell them that?” in the background, but suddenly the whole construction crew, ten or fifteen men in their neon orange vests and plaid, are peering at the rectangle where she resides. They all wave and grin and laugh. “Can she hear us?” they ask. You turn an earbud toward them and they all serenade her with ‘Happy Birthdays.’

“She can see us?” one of them inquires, incredulous but delighted.

“Yeah!” you reply. Everyone in the square is laughing, and then you place the earbud back in and they gather a few feet away to eat. It’s just one of those moments—like the other day when you stopped to stare at a new Banksy, and strangers gathered around to discuss the additional tags, and what they would do if that was their wall, whether they would tear it down and sell it or leave it there, not for profit. One of those moments you only get in a city, when the different spheres—the MTA nightcrawlers, the students, the barhoppers—intersect, briefly lift one another. It’s just strangers making strangers smile, but there’s something powerful in that.

You hang up with your best friend, telling her you have to catch the train. As you walk toward the subway entrance, another group—a group of girls that had been sitting a few feet away the whole time—call out: “Tell her happy birthday!”